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East Asian Immersion: Tianjin


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Once we were finished with Shanghai we only had nine days left to fill in our itinerary. We still wanted to spend a few days in Beijing at the end so we chose Tianjin to fill the gap since it was the largest city in eastern China we hadn't visited. In fact, Tianjin is the third largest city in China although it receives much less attention from travelers than Beijing, Shanghai, and many smaller cities. Internet searches didn't produce a long list of things to do in Tianjin, but we were confident that we could stay busy for three days in such a large city.

We arrived on a late flight from Shanghai and didn't get into our Airbnb until close to midnight. As usual, we were on an upper floor of a tall condo building. The dilapidated lobby and elevator weren't encouraging, but the apartment itself was clean, modern, and spacious. It was also furnished rather ostentatiously with matching faux Victorian living room and bedroom sets. China is never short of surprises.
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By the time we got ourselves out of the apartment the next morning the heat and humidity had already become oppressive. Our apartment complex was a typical Chinese block of modern high-rises amidst a mostly flat expanse of enormous boulevards. We had a noodle breakfast and took a short walk around our immediate neighborhood. I found an unusual pair of sandals with a drawstring-type closure and we built our own salad at a small produce market. Unfortunately when the salad bar owner tossed our selections with seasonings I was too late to stop her from throwing a huge spoonful of salt into the mix, which rendered the final product virtually inedible.
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Across the street from our apartment complex is Tianjin's Ancient Culture Street, which is a very touristy rendition of an old commercial street with early 20th century styled buildings which now house various retail establishments. While much of it was schlock, there were enough stores devoted to genuine local artisanry to keep us entertained for a couple of hours.
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I wandered into one small shop whose proprietor was serving various alcoholic drinks in small clay saucers. He demonstrated that once I drank the contents of the saucer, I should heave it against the far wall of the shop. Indeed, there was a huge pile of broken saucers at the bottom of the wall. Mei Ling joined me and we selected some rice-derived moonshine for ourselves and plum juice for the kids, and we all took a turn at heaving our saucers at the wall except for Ian who managed to drop his on the floor immediately.
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Our last adventure on Ancient Cultural Street was trying nitro puffs for the first time. I'm not sure how liquid nitrogen became a part of ancient Chinese culture but it was a fun experience for everyone.

We walked back east and soon found ourselves at the western bank of the Hai River, a wide channel that flows through the center of Tianjin before emptying into Bohai Bay. The other side of the river looked to have the most activity so we set across the bridge that stretched out in front of us. The bridge was lined with snack vendors who were cooking with rickety-appearing propane tanks. To the north we could see the red arch of the Jingang Bridge and behind that the huge Ferris wheel called Tianjin Eye. On the south side of the bridge locals were diving acrobatically into the river from a concrete esplanade.
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We walked south along the esplanade which was an excellent way to see the mixture of classical buildings and modern skyscrapers that Tianjin had to offer. The beauty and variety of styles of the many bridges was reminiscent of Bilbao.
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The esplanade seemed to be a beloved place for locals to walk, ride bicycles, and enjoy amateur street performances. In the space of an hour we encountered a saxophone player, an operatic dance, and groups of middle aged locals dancing and marching for exercise. Our kids were thrilled to be able to join in the last of these activities. The best part is that nothing felt like it was manufactured for tourism, mainly because there were hardly any tourists there except for other Chinese. It was just people getting outside on a pleasant summer evening to relax and do the things they loved.

As Tianjin slipped into darkness the river promenade remained brightly illuminated by streetlamps and strategically-placed floodlights. Buildings and bridges acquired an unearthly and beautiful glow. The skyscrapers to the south were also artfully highlighted, their geometric outlines encased in rectangles and parabolas of light. It was as though the entire city had been engineered to create a nocturnal spectacle.
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Our evening's journey ended at the Italian Style Street, a touristy development at the site of the former Italian concession. The area was renovated into its current form and opened to the public in 2008 to coincide with the Beijing Olympics. Contrary to its name, the area is actually a small cluster of cobblestone streets with a few older buildings but nothing that struck me as particularly Italian in character. Of the many international restaurants on the main pedestrian street, only a few were Italian. We ultimately settled on a French restaurant called La Seine which proved to be extraordinarily good. It's hard to compare French with Chinese cuisine, but it was certainly one of the more enjoyable meals of our six week trip.
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We had barely noticed how far we had walked to our final destination but the prospect of returning on foot after our huge meal was very unappealing. Mei Ling hailed a cab with her Chinese ridesharing app and we returned to the apartment very satisfied with our first evening in Tianjin. Despite the city's lack of international recognition, the walk along the Hai River had been one of the most interesting and pleasurable experiences of the trip so far.

I wish I could say that our first evening in Tianjin was just a taste of what the city had in store for us, but it turned out to be the high point of our three day stay. The next morning we took a long taxi ride to the southern part of the city to hunt for a seafood market I had read about on a travel blog. In general there was a surprising absence of food markets in central Tianjin and this was my only lead after extensive searching. When we finally arrived after much driver confusion we found a wholesale market that had only a few vendors among an array of deserted warehouses, and no retail customers in sight. It was a complete wash, and it took quite a while for Mei Ling to find a driver on her Chinese app to get us out of there. The driver took us to a seafood restaurant which was somewhat a fish market in its own right, so we were able to get the food we wanted if not the experience.
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One of China's special qualities is that it has some of the most beautiful city parks I've ever visited. I love discovering the creative landscaping, secluded paths, and serene lakes of these urban oases. The parks in Dalian and Beijing had been particularly awesome. Tianjin's largest park is called Water Park because most of the surface area is comprised of two enormous lakes separated by a chain of islands connected by bridges. On the way to the park I saw an unfinished skyscraper from the window of the taxi. There were no other buildings around it which made it hard to judge its height but it seemed gigantic. The taxi driver told Mei Ling that it was the Goldin Finance 117 tower and it had been under construction since 2008. It was originally supposed to be completed in 2014 but construction has been suspended multiple times due to lack of financing. If the building is completed as scheduled in 2020, it will be the fifth tallest in the world at 1959 feet. My photo from the taxi window through the smog doesn't do the building justice so I stole an aerial picture from this awesome skyscraper message board.
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When we arrived at Water Park we took a wrong entrance and ended up at the adjacent Zhou Enlai Memorial. Zhou is revered in China for his role in the Chinese Civil War and his position as the first premier of the People's Republic of China. It wasn't really our kind of place but the kids got a kick out of touring the airplane that Zhou received as a gift from Stalin.
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Once we figured out how to get to Water Park it did not disappoint. At the northern end of the park was a Bonsai Garden with a classical Chinese pavilion. The kids were amazed by the miniature trees and Cleo was very skeptical when I told her they were regular trees that had been trimmed very carefully over years.
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The trail over boardwalks and bridges from the north to the south side of the park was truly remarkable. We were surrounded on every side by tranquil lakes and lush vegetation, yet on the other side of the water was the imposing urban landscape of Tianjin. The park wasn't as meticulously maintained as People's Park in Dalian but it was just as beautiful in its own way.
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On the way back to the center of town we drove around the Tianjin Radio and Television Tower, which is the eighth tallest freestanding tower in the world. For a city that is barely on the tourism radar, Tianjin has a surprising number of visually arresting sights.
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Tianjin is another city that has largely lost its night markets, if it ever had any. Our research uncovered a couple of food streets, but they proved to be a pale imitation of true night markets. They were more similar to Ancient Cultural Street with lonely vendors selling traditional snacks in a largely deserted cavernous building.
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It was dark by the time we arrived at Minyuan Stadium, a former sports arena which is now a multipurpose space for artistic performances, boutiques, and restaurants. In front of the Neoclassical entrance arch was a sports monument that had a large installation of illuminated piano keys arranged around it. Dozens of kids were jumping on the keys which caused them to blink and change colors. Inside the stadium people were congregated on the concrete bleachers even though there was nothing happening on the small stage at the center except for a few kids skateboarding. Inside the covered archways was a somewhat sterile but crowded night market devoted to crafts and artisanal foods. As we left the stadium we encountered a crowd watching middle-aged Chinese women dancing to Irish-sounding music being played by Chinese men with harmonica and bongo drums. China seems to have become one of the world's foremost cultural melting pots even without having much of a foreign community. We had dinner at a steakhouse in Minyuan Stadium but couldn't recreate the magic from the previous night at the French restaurant. The steaks were tough and greasy despite the Western prices.

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We started our last day in Tianjin with a walk up the Western bank of the Hai to the Yongle Bridge, where we bought tickets for an evening ride on the Tianjin Eye. On the way we noticed that many of the trees had what looked like a large open insect cocoon nailed to their trunks. We were unable to think of a reason why anyone would do this, nor could I find out anything online afterwards.
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We spent most of the day in the Heping District of central Tianjin. The Porcelain House is a large mansion in the French Concession area whose current owner has decorated it with thousands of porcelain jars and porcelain vases. It reminded me a lot of the Dickeyville Grotto in Wisconsin, an odd convergence of Eastern and Western aesthetics. It was quite an interesting and beautiful structure, but it was also a quite expensive tourist trap so we took photos outside and moved on.
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We took a long walk southeast towards another Tianjin landmark, St. Joseph's Cathedral. On the way we encountered a large shopping mall with several food courts which had much better offerings than the touristy official food streets. With full stomachs we pressed onward to the cathedral, which turned out to be a pleasantly symmetric red and white-striped confection. The hundred-year-old Roman Catholic church was constructed from bricks shipped from France and seemed quite incongruous against a backdrop of drab modern highrises.
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At this point we were relatively close to Minyuan Stadium so we decided to take another look during the day time. On the way we passed a barbershop and all three of us boys got our hair cut under the watchful eye of Mei Ling.
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The area around Minyuan Stadium is called Wu Da Dao, or Five Great Avenues. The area is known for its many Western style buildings that were built during the concession era in the early 20th century. During the day we found the stadium and surroundings to be almost completely deserted. We walked around the immediate area and didn't see any buildings that were particularly remarkable. Tourists were being loaded into horse-drawn carriages for tours of the area but we decided we'd already seen enough Western style buildings at Badaguan in Qingdao.
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The time had come for us to return to the Tianjin Eye for our scheduled ride. The enormous Ferris Wheel was already illuminated in the gathering dusk. There was a long line of people who already had tickets but Mei Ling was somehow able to negotiate with a security guard to get us past the bulk of it. Even so we had to wait on a very slow moving line for more than an hour after our ride was supposed to have begun. Eventually we got on the wheel which also turned excruciating slowly. It took forty minutes to complete the revolution by which time the kids were totally bored and jumping around the small cabin. Thanks to the many tall condo buildings in the area, the view from the top wasn't that much better than it had been from the ground. Of all the things we had done in Tianjin, riding the Eye had certainly been the least worthwhile.
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For our last dinner in Tianjin I had a lead on a place called Shiyue Food Street in the Hebei District on the east side of the river. I'd only found one mention of it so I wasn't sure it really existed, but fortunately our taxi driver knew exactly where it was. There weren't many restaurants open on the street but at least it was outdoors and crowded. It was the only authentic night market we found in Tianjin.
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We had now been to the five largest cities in China and Tianjin was by far the least impressive, which explains why Tianjin is barely a blip on the tourist radar. I was still happy we'd visited, mainly for the experience of walking alongside the Hai River and eating at the Italian Style Town. However, there was nothing else about Tianjin that particularly stood out even when compared to smaller cities like Dalian or Shenyang. I think Tianjin is best visited as an overnight trip from Beijing so that the evening can be enjoyed on the river and perhaps a visit to Ancient Cultural Street or Water Park in the morning before returning. And definitely, for sure, skip the Tianjin Eye.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:07 Archived in China Tagged travel market china blog tianjin tony friedman Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part III


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For our second stint in Beijing we decided to stay to the west of the center, in the Haidian District. We had a suite in an upscale business hotel that we'd been provided with by one of Mei Ling's friends from the Chinese community in Miami.
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On our first night back we only had time to visit Qianmen Street, a pedestrianized shopping street just south of Tiananmen Square. Almsot all the stores had already closed, but it was cool to see some of Beijing's most famous gates and forts illuminated in the stillness of the night. It was the closest we would come to a Western tourist's experience in Beijing.
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In the morning I saw that we were within walking distance of an interesting-looking park called Yuyuantan Park, which takes its name from the large pond that occupies most of its area. Although Beijing is one of the largest cities in the world not to be built near any major river or coastline, it contains many canals and small lakes which are sourced from natural springs. Many of the park lakes are connected by the canals and there is even a boat that can take you from the Beijing Zoo to the Summer Palace five miles away. Yuyuantan is also connected to one of the canals that eventually leads to the Summer Palace. When we arrived at the west entrance to the park and looked out over the pond it was hard to believe we were still in the center of Beijing. We were almost the only passengers on a good-sized boat that ferried us to the narrow strip of land in the center of the pond that supports the steep marble bridge.
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Yuyuantan Park was a good example of why it's sometimes better to toss away one's guidebook and let Google Maps help you explore a city. While most of the Western tourists in Beijing were slogging and sweating their way around the Forbidden City that morning, we were enjoying a leisurely walk through lush greenery surrounded by water. Everywhere around us were the rhythms of daily life in Beijing, from locals strolling with umbrellas to the elderly men taking a dip in the pond. In the distance we could appreciate the hypodermic elegance of the CCTV tower.
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We continued our exploration of modern Beijing at Wukesong, an area that's only known to Westerners for its large market for second-hand camera equipment. The area is now the site of a large outdoor mall with upscale restaurants and boutiques. We found an outpost of a chain restaurant that specialized in whole broiled fish smothered in savory sauces.
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A welcome surprise at the mall was an exhibition of sculpture by an artist named Wang Yi, about whom I could find nothing in the English language internet. His compositions featured bald, middle-aged men in apparently uncomfortable situations such as being attached to puppet strings or tightly packed into a monument. Placards in front of the sculptures provided rather abstract, inoffensive explanations of their meanings. Perhaps it was just my unconscious bias at play, but I couldn't escape the impression that the artist was engaged in a subtle protest of totalitarianism. What could be more subversive than tricking your oppressor into celebrating your defiance by misrepresenting its true message?
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The mall also featured long, tubular slides that never would have been insurable in the United States. They were accompanied by long lists of rules in the inimitable Chinese style such as "The drunk is not allowed to take part in this game."
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We spent much of the afternoon at an acrobatic show that Mei Ling's friends had given her tickets to. Some of the stunts were truly terrifying, as were the apparent ages of the performers. Mei Ling ran into some of the girl acrobats during intermission who claimed to be teenagers but looked much younger. They told her they had been exclusively training and touring with the troupe since they were ten years old, but we suspected they had probably started at age seven or younger. Outside the kids got to hang out with one of the older acrobats who was taking a smoking break.
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We still hadn't visited all the food streets in central Beijing and the most promising of the ones that were left seemed to be Huguosi. We were fortunate to encounter one of the local specialties at the first storefront we came to. Beijing yogurt can be recognized by the distinctive white ceramic jars with blue cow labels. We meandered down the colorful street and eventually settled on a skewer restaurant where the highlight was perfectly-crisped chicken feet. Huguosi had a more authentic feel than Nanluoguxiang and was much more focused on food rather than shopping or souvenirs.
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The next morning we took the metro way out northeast almost to the 5th Ring Road to meet yet another of Mei Ling's friends at the 798 Art Zone. I had fond memories of this unique art district that had arisen from the occupation of a complex of abandoned factories and warehouses in the mid 1990's. There was still a lot to see in terms of sculpture and street art, but 798 had changed a great deal since my last visit eleven years earlier. I remembered large galleries that were full of beautiful abstract art and so few visitors that the staff often accompanied me around the exhibits to answer any questions I had. The area was much more crowded now, with many Westerners, and a large industry of coffee shops and various forms of tack. The galleries were smaller and more numerous, and many had given over space to selling things like posters and T-shirts. We searched in vain for the inspiring displays that I remembered and then succumbed to the growing impatience of the children with our efforts.
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In the evening we hooked up with more Chinese contacts for a banquet at a Yunnanese restaurant in the Wudaokou neighborhood. I wasn't that impressed with the food, but the design of the restaurant and the epicurean market upstairs was very appealing.
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Back at the hotel I saw Cleo preoccupied with the pen and notepad while the two boys were watching TV. We were busy packing and I didn't pay her much attention. In the morning I came across the pad on my desk and I was shocked to see that Cleo had started her own travel journal. She had recently been asking questions about my blog but I hadn't realized how interested she was. Sometimes I wonder if I've surrendered to some kind of delusion by making travel one of our family's highest priorities. I've thought that perhaps our kids would be better off spending the summers at camp with friends instead of being dragged around to places they're too young to appreciate. Seeing my seven year old starting to click not just with the joy of travel, but the idea of sharing her experiences with the world was a true epiphany that reassured me that I haven't lost my mind after all. I also had to remind myself not to underestimate my daughter. Before long I think she's going to be taking over this blog.
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On the way to the airport we passed one of the strangest skyscrapers I've ever seen, which in Asia is saying a lot. Thanks to the internet I learned it's the tallest tower of Pangu Plaza and the curvaceous upper floors are intended to resemble the head of a dragon. In 2016 the building was seized from a billionaire real estate developer as part of a corruption crackdown and it is now the Chinese headquarters for IBM.
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As it turned out this would be our last sight of Beijing on this trip. We had planned to return for another stay in Beijing after Japan but events took us in another direction. We didn't make it to a couple of the food streets on my list but after experiencing Nanluoguxiang and Huguosi I doubt we missed much. Beijing may be a better city now than it was in 2008 for a lot of people, but for travelers like us it has lost much of its appeal and I really don't know if or when we'll be back. We boarded our plane with great anticipation for our first visit to Japan since Cleo was a baby.

Posted by zzlangerhans 11:28 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony night_market friedman wukesong huguosi yuyuantan Comments (6)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part I


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I was completely unfamiliar with the city of Dalian until I was on my eighth visit to China, so I think it's safe to say that the vast majority of Westerners have never heard of it. Even after being to China so many times, the only way I came across Dalian was by studying a map to better understand my location when I was visiting the equally unknown city of Shenyang. Every time I visit China I become a little more familiar with its geography, but there's always another level of detail to investigate. While reviewing Shenyang's surroundings, I realized that the province of Liaoning had a rather striking coastline that resembled a closed hand with its index finger extended to point southward into the sea. About halfway along the index finger peninsula, a much smaller peninsula projected eastward almost like a wart on the back of the finger. Most of this wart was comprised by the only sizable city in the region, which was Dalian. I immediately felt an attraction to the city due to its remoteness from other metropolitan centers and its obvious intimate relationship with the sea. Mei Ling told me she had never been there, but Dalian had a good reputation in China as a vacation spot. I placed it on my ever-lengthening list of places to visit without expecting we would get there just two years later.
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After we decided we would base ourselves in Beijing for summer vacation and visit nearby cities, Dalian was one of the obvious destinations. It is accessible from Beijing by train in about five hours or by plane in an hour and a half. Since our Airbnb in Beijing was at the doorstep of the Airport Express train, we decided to fly. Our Airbnb in Dalian was a significant upgrade from Beijing, a 23rd floor condo in a complex of massive skyscrapers in the center of the city called Eton Place. One of Mei Ling's oldest friends, Guo Guo, flew in from Guangzhou and stayed with us in Dalian.
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Once we were settled in our Airbnb we set off for the closest night market we had researched. The supposed night markets had all disappointed us in Beijing and we were hoping for a better experience in Dalian. Our condo complex was surrounded by wide avenues with never-ending streams of speeding cars which could often only be traversed via underpasses. Our unfamiliarity with the location of the underpasses forced us off course and into new and fascinating discoveries. The most visually striking feature of the city was the futuristic skyscrapers, some of which were as tall as the Empire State Building in New York City. In fact they appeared even taller as they generally stood some distance from the other tall buildings, unlike in New York City which looks like a forest of skyscrapers. The most amazing were the tallest tower in our home base of Eton Place, currently the 42nd tallest building in the world, and Dalian International Trade Center, currently the 49th. The International Trade Center was useful as a landmark as it could be seen from practically anywhere near the center of the city. The five tallest buildings in Dalian were all completed within the last five years, and sixteen of the tallest twenty within the last decade. It was clear that Dalian had recently undergone a remarkable transformation.
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Zhongyuan Food Street was the epitome of a Chinese night market with an enormous variety of food choices along a single colorful, throbbing street. The first restaurant we encountered boasted a large array of tanks with every imaginable type of seafood. The hawker at the front was eager to keep our interest and showed the kids around the tanks, eventually letting them play with a live octopus.
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Sadly for the hawker, we weren't about to sit down at the first restaurant we saw. We gradually weaved our way through the crowd, marveling at the vast selection of skewers, small plates, fresh fruit, and live seafood restaurants that lined the sides of the street. It was a scene that couldn't be found anywhere in the world except China (and Taiwan).
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We eventually settled on a live seafood place and gave our orders at the tanks. We decided on live octopus, blood clams and tairagai clams, an unfamiliar fish whose named translated to "young lady", and sea intestines. Sea intestines are a bizarre life form that bears an uncanny resemblance to human guts.

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Mei Ling requested the octopus to be prepared raw, which meant that the chopped tentacles were still squirming when the dish was brought to the table. Contrary to popular belief, this does not mean the octopus was still alive. However, the nerves to the tentacles still function for a while even after the head and brain are detached. Naturally it's revolting to many people but it's far from the most shocking thing I've eaten. We offered it to Cleo and Spenser but only Spenser could be convinced to try it.

In the morning we went to the main market within walking distance of our apartment. It was a large complex with warehouse-type buildings devoted to seafood, meat, and produce. The meat section was particularly overwhelming with dozens of stalls tightly packed together and the sounds of cleavers chopping through thick cow and pig bones. The smell of freshly slaughtered animals and offal was heavy in the air, and motorbikes and loading equipment zipped through the narrow aisles with wild abandon.
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The outdoor sections were largely devoted to fruit and spices. At one point, a vendor good-naturedly lifted a corner of his canopy to allow a large SUV to turn the corner. We spent most of the morning in the market and the adjacent shopping center, where we engaged in a fruitless quest to locate a magnetic backgammon set. Another interesting discovery were small green melons that had been grown in Buddha-shaped molds.
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In the afternoon we took the bus to Xinghai Square, a relatively new feature of Dalian that has been described as the largest city square in the world. Across from the bus stop was either a small park or a large lawn inexplicably adorned with the figures of a giant bulldog, a young Buddhist monk, and three enormous fish designed to look like hedges. None of us had any idea what the tableau was intended to signify and there was nothing around to provide any clue what we were looking at. Over the next few days we were going to become accustomed to these whimsical sights around Dalian.
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Xinghai Square is a lot of things, but city square is not one of them. There isn't anything resembling a city near the enormous grassy oval, which is surrounded on most of its perimeter by tall, ultramodern apartment buildings and hotels. Despite the apparent housing for tens of thousands of people, the expanse between them was empty except for occasional pedestrians strolling towards the waterfront. Each of the many entrances to the oval was flanked by aerodynamic mesh sculptures of athletes engaged in different sports.
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The south-facing portion of Xinghai Square is the only break in the ring of skyscrapers. Between the oval and the waterfront is an elevated, curved platform that reminded me of the roof of the Oslo Opera House. It's called the Open Book monument, although it looks a lot more like a skateboard ramp than a book. Furthering the confusion is a bronze statue of a skateboarder on one of the monument's staircases, although there were no actual skateboarders on the book and I highly doubt the security guards would have looked favorably on that kind of activity.
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The waterfront area was quite crowded and fun. We admired the profile of the Xinghaiwan Bridge that crossed the bay while the kids chased a remote-controlled motorcycle around the concrete plaza. There was a good-sized amusement park adjacent to the plaza and we let the kids enjoy a few rides. Having a little time to process what I had been seeing, I was starting to realize I was in a very special and unusual place. This little corner of China was still too remote and insignificant to be of any interest to Western tourists, yet it was greatly appreciated by the Chinese and had acquired a peculiar hypermodern yet traditional aesthetic. I felt very fortunate to be witnessing this amazing transformation of a rural city into a unique modern metropolis.

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On the eastern side of Xinghai Square a canal extends from the bay inward towards the city. On the far side of the canal were some particularly ornate apartment buildings and a beautiful Gothic castle which we later learned was the ultra-expensive Castle Hotel.
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We headed back to the city and another busy night market for dinner. I learned how to get sea snails out of their narrow spiral shells and Cleo learned how difficult it is to pick up a quail egg with chopsticks. By the end of the night we'd already had more fun in Dalian than we'd had in five days in Beijing.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 15:37 Archived in China Tagged travel china blog tony night_market dalian friedman Comments (2)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part II


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On Saturday morning we visited the tiny market in front of our apartment building. In China things get going pretty early, so it was remarkable that the last two mornings we had left the house before the market opened. Despite the small size we were able to put together a good breakfast of bread, bananas, tomatoes, and cucumbers. It was also my first time since we arrived that I saw our lovely apartment building by the light of day.
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We had two more markets to see that morning, both in the far north of Beijing outside of the fifth ring road. This is the outermost of the four concentric main roads that surround the center of Beijing (the original first ring road has been consumed by redevelopment). Although we weren't staying in a touristy area, here we might as well have been in China a century ago in terms of how many Westerners were present. Even so far from the center it was amazing how many enormous complexes of towering apartment buildings were present. I calculated that each building could hold close to a thousand people, and they often appeared in groups of ten or more. It seemed I could see enough housing for a hundred thousand people just from where I was standing, and I wondered how Beijing could be populated by only ten million people if the outskirts of the city were this densely populated.
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The Beiyuan market wasn't particularly remarkable, given that it was already the fifth market we had visited in Beijing. Even so, the sights and sounds and smells of a produce market are a great way to begin a day of travel. We also got to watch the process of making green onion pancakes at a popular food stall in the market.
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Taxis were hard to come by at Beiyuan market but we did come across a lady with a three-wheeled vehicle. Our next destination wasn't terribly far away so all five of us squeezed in and held on for dear life as the rickety transport careened through the busy avenues. The driver abruptly stopped well short of our destination, claiming she wasn't allowed to cross the bridge ahead. Mei Ling argued and docked the fare, but we had no choice but to cross the Lishui Bridge over the Qinghe River on foot. I put Spenser on my back for the long walk to Lishuiqiao seafood market, but the older kids weren't too happy about the trek.

Fortunately the seafood market was a good experience, thanks to a restaurant right next to the tanks that specialized in cooking their customers' fresh purchases. One of our favorite things about China is that in the markets we aren't limited to looking at the food and thinking how great it would taste on the plate. Most of the time we can buy what interests us the most and find someone to cook it for us. We bought clams and crabs and had our best meal in China up to that point.
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In the afternoon we met up with Cleo's online music teacher near our Airbnb. Cleo has been taking lessons for several months on Skype with an instructor who lives in Beijing, and she was very excited to meet him in person. Our destination was Ghost Street, one of Beijing's most famous food streets which was just a five minute walk from our Airbnb. Despite the spooky name, there's nothing scary about Ghost Street unless the sight of enormous piles of crawfish fills you with trepidation. Many of the restaurants are open 24 hours and display a festive mix of neon and traditional Chinese ornamentation.
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From Ghost Street we took a detour down an interesting alley and found ourselves in an area of peaceful hutongs and siheyuan walled courtyards. This style of housing was typical of Chinese cities for thousands of years but has been in drastic decline since the Communist revolution in the mid 20th century. Only recently has the government taken an interest in preserving the remaining courtyards. We were fortunate to stumble across one with open doors and were greeted cordially by one of the residents, who turned out to be the owner of the courtyard. The owner told Mei Ling the value of the property was a billion yuan, or about 140 million US dollars. I had some trouble believing that this pleasant but fairly plain courtyard on the ground level close to a busy commercial area could command a higher price than the most desirable New York City skyscraper penthouses, but Mei Ling insisted that the real estate market in Beijing had indeed ascended to such lofty levels.
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Dinner was most memorable for some of the interesting translations on the English version of the menu. I didn't have the courage to try either of these dishes.
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Afterwards we took the metro to another food street called Niujie, which proved to be a disappointment. Once again this was just a street with several restaurants, rather than actual street food. Many of the restaurants were closed, and a local advised us that this was more of a day time experience. Niujie is known for Uighur Muslim specialties, which usually means lamb skewers. Indeed, the large restaurant we eventually ate at offered a proliferation of skewers. I'm not particularly a fan of the lamb used to make these, which generally consists of tiny scraps of fatty and gristly meat. Furthermore, skewers have become so popular around Beijing that it's easy to find them anywhere so the long trek to Niujie had largely been a waste of time.

On the last morning of our first stay in Beijing we met up with another of Mei Ling's friends at a mall in the eastern suburb of Tong Zhou. It was a fairly typical mall except for the workers making sweet cakes inside a Plexiglas enclosure. We let the kids entertain themselves in the play zone while we explored the mall. Afterwards we had lunch at a restaurant where the kids could pull their own noodles from strips of dough and cook them in the hot pot.
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After a few hours more of letting our kids and Mei Ling's friend's kids play together at her apartment, we took a long metro ride back to the center of Beijing. The kids hadn't slept and both Spenser and Ian conked out on the first train. I was able to carry Spenser in the mei tai but Mei Ling had to carry Ian in her arms through two metro changes which was very painful. At least it was the final aftereffect of the jetlag that we had to deal with on the trip. We eventually surfaced in central Beijing adjacent to Beihai Park, one of the places I had enjoyed most in my previous visit to Beijing. Unfortunately once we arrived the sun was setting rapidly and it was clear we weren't going to be able to enjoy the park. The lakes north of Beihai Park and the surrounding neighborhoods are known as Shichahai, an area filled with restaurants and nightlife. We walked along the west side of Qianhai Lake, looking for a restaurant with an appetizing menu and a view of the lake. We didn't find what we were looking for by the water, but the brightly lit restaurants and their lakeside reflections were beautiful. We came across a street vendor who was making candy animals out of blown sugar and he let the kids help construct their own purchases.

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We walked as far as the bridge that crosses the narrow strait where Qianhai Lake joins Houhai Lake. On the eastern bank of the lake we finally found a place to eat and then loaded our exhausted family into a taxi for our last night in Dongzhimen. In the morning we caught the Airport Express from Dongzhimen which took us right to our departure terminal. We got a great spot in the front with a view of the track ahead. It was almost like riding through a forest except for the high-rises behind the trees. Our departure from Beijing was uneventful except for the unfortunate restroom signage at our gate.

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Posted by zzlangerhans 10:21 Archived in China Tagged travel china blog tony beihai_park shichahai friedman beiyuan lishuiqiao guijie niujie Comments (0)

East Asian Immersion: Beijing part I


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Every country we visit has its own unique attributes that make it virtually impossible to say that any one is intrinsically better than all the others. However, there's one country we have a special relationship with because it's Mei Ling's birthplace and the place she lived until her early twenties. Traveling to China is like going back home for her and has begun to feel that way for me as well. There's no other country where we can communicate and interact with the local population and integrate into the native culture as easily as we can in China. China is also the country most like the United States in terms of size and diversity, perhaps even more so. China's regions and large cities each have their own individual qualities that make every visit different. This was my ninth visit to China and I've realized that I would probably need fifty trips to begin to feel like I'd seen everything a traveler needed to in the country. For these reasons Mei Ling and I are on the same page when it comes to China - the only thing that stops us from going more is the number of other places we still haven't visited at all.

Mei Ling and I have traveled together to her hometown region of Heilongjiang and to Shanghai several times as well as Guangdong province. However, while I've visited Beijing on my own before and Mei Ling lived there for two years, we've never experienced that amazing and crucially important city together. That made it a natural choice for the location to base ourselves in for this six week exploration of the central eastern coastal area of China and the Kansai region of Japan. We decided that to reduce the stress of migrating around with all our belongings and three small kids to manage, we would base ourselves in Beijing and take a three shorter trips to different areas of interest. We changed our plans somewhat along the way in order to see more cities and spend less time sweltering in a Beijing heat wave.
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The worst thing about the flight from the US to Beijing was that there weren't any good red eye options so the kids were awake most of the way. That meant incessant requests of assistance with headphones, changing movies, drinks and snacks, and bathroom trips. Normally even though I almost never sleep on flights I get at least a couple of hours of being zoned out but that wasn't the case this time. When we finally arrived in Beijing in the early afternoon my brain felt like it had been pickled in brine, and it was another two hours before we finally arrived at our Airbnb. The Airbnb was a basic apartment on the 13th floor of a nondescript apartment building in the Dongzhimen area of central Beijing, not far from the Sanlitun embassy area popular with expats.
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It was still afternoon and going to sleep right away would have been a disaster with respect to getting on the right day/night schedule. Instead we took a five minute walk to a busy restaurant block where we had a huge hotpot meal. This was enough of an accomplishment that we didn't feel we had wasted the day completely and burned a couple of hours. At home we wearily unpacked and crashed into bed around seven.
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I have no doubt that I would have slept through until morning and been perfectly on schedule by day two. I was in the Marianas Trench of deep sleep when forty pounds of affection dropped onto my back. I probably would have had a heart attack if it hadn't happened countless times before. Cleo had woken up and decided she wanted to cuddle. I grasped as tightly as I could to whatever wisps of slumber hadn't floated away and prayed that she would fall back asleep, but within a minute a full-blown wrestling match was taking place on my back. Ian had woken up as well and was trying to share the real estate. After a few minutes of this I knew they were awake for real and my only chance at peace was the iPads. My phone informed me it wasn't even one in the morning. I tossed them their tablets and spent the next couple of hours in a semi-conscious fugue state trying to block out the alternating giggling and squabbling from the other half of the bed. At one point, Mei Ling opened our door and tossed in Spenser who was similarly wide awake and I gave up my attempts to catch up on REM. It's funny how all our kids of different ages, all sleeping different amounts on the plane, all woke up at the same excruciating moment in the middle of the night while the adults were on their way to complete recovery.
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In the end it worked out fine because China starts at five in the morning and we were ready for it bright and early. Our first stop was Chaowai morning market in the central neighborhood of Chaoyang, a short cab ride from our Airbnb. Within seconds of entering the market we were reminded of why the brutal flight and all the other inconveniences of traveling to China are more than worthwhile. The very first stall had an enormous heap of yang mei, one of my favorite fruits which is virtually unobtainable outside of China. Most Westerners are completely unfamiliar with it and the fruit doesn't even have a generally accepted English name, although it is sometimes called Chinese bayberry or yumberry. It is about the size of a small plum with a pit in the middle, but otherwise it is completely unlike any other fruit in taste and texture. The surface is rough and a little rubbery, kind of like a Koosh ball. The meat varies from sour to sweet depending on the ripeness of the fruit and possesses a faint fermented taste which strengthens as the fruit ripens. One of the reasons that yang mei is rarely exported is its extreme perishability. The fermented taste of the fruit becomes stronger over the course of the day after it is bought, and that process is accelerated dramatically if it is handled roughly. Just putting a bag of yang mei down on a table is enough to bruise the fruit. That's usually not a problem as I would have a hard time letting yang mei get through a day without being eaten. It was gratifying to see our kids all enjoyed the yang mei as much as I did, although Cleo seemed to be the one with the most passion for them.
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After buying our yang mei we slowly perused the rest of the market, which was dominated by fruits and vegetables. We also bought some amazingly huge and sweet mulberries which stained all our fingers purple. At the back of the market we found the food court where savory tripe and noodle soups were being served at very basic stalls. We all ate ravenously in this most local and authentic of all the places we could have chosen for breakfast.
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We took another cab to Shengfu Xiaoguan Market, a more upscale but no less authentic produce market to the northeast of our Airbnb. This market was inside an enormous warehouse and had a large meat and seafood area as well as fruits and vegetables. Here we bought cherries and several varieties of grapes, some of them as large and shiny as plums. I took the kids by the seafood stalls where live shrimp would frantically launch themselves out of their bins onto the floor of the market. We would probably have hunted for another food court but I could tell the kids were starting to sag. Cabs were completely unavailable at this point due to the morning rush hour but we were able to figure out which bus would get us close to our Airbnb. All three kids were asleep as soon as their heads hit the pillows. It was still just nine in the morning.
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We let the kids sleep until late afternoon while we worked on logistics, which was probably a mistake. We went straight from the Airbnb to dinner in Sanlitun, which has historically been a popular locale for Western expats. I had been in Sanlitun on my previous visit to Beijing in 2008 and I didn't recognize the environs at all. Previously it had been a collection of high end bars and clubs mixed with numerous less salutary establishments, but now the area was filled with skyscrapers and high end malls. Mei Ling had found a promotion for a seafood restaurant which allowed us to feast on an enormous platter of fruit and shellfish for a surprisingly affordable price. Afterwards we followed a narrow waterfall down the center of a staircase which turned into a stream that coursed along the lower level of the outdoor mall. Despite the late hour we could see a lot of people sweating furiously in a high impact aerobics studio with glass walls. Those less fitness-inclined had a wide selection of restaurants and cafes they could patronize. I realized that a lot had changed in Beijing in just a short time, and Mei Ling confirmed that the government was actively modernizing and gentrifying the larger cities. Cleaning out the cheap entertainment and the street markets was one prong of a larger effort to reduce the migration of Chinese from rural areas to the major cities, which were becoming unsustainably overpopulated. While there were certainly benefits to this approach, we would find that some of the changes were destroying what made Beijing so unique and interesting. The new Sanlitun was certainly a pleasant place to eat and shop, but it was now much like any high end shopping neighborhood in Korea or Taiwan.
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The kids hadn't make much progress on their jetlag, thanks to sleeping most of the previous day, so we had another early arousal the following morning. That allowed us to hit two more morning markets. Xinmin vegetable market is located just north of the second ring road, adjacent to one of Beijing's many canals. I'm always amazed by the sheer size of the stacks of fruits and vegetables in Chinese markets. The kids had fun getting splashed by the frantic carp in the live fish tanks.
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Back near Dongzhimen, Sanyuanli Market has a reputation for produce that is so high in quality that restaurant chefs shop there. We didn't have the facilities or the energy to cook our own meals at home, but we saw some of the most beautiful and colorful seafood that we've ever come across in a market.
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In the afternoon some local friends of Mei Ling's Chinese friends in Miami took us out to a Beijing duck restaurant near the historic center of the city. Apparently it was a very famous restaurant but I was so exhausted from dealing with the kids since three in the morning that I can barely remember the meal. Fortunately it seems I took a couple of pictures.
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After a long afternoon nap it was time to go out on the town again. Beijing may have lost their street markets, but they still have several somewhat pedestrianized areas that they call food streets. Nanluoguxiang is a narrow road in an area of the city center which has preserved its old-fashioned character. Most of these small streets, or hutongs, have disappeared during the modernization of Beijing and the remaining ones have subsequently become something of a tourist attraction in their own right. Nanluoguxiang has been developed into a combined shopping street and food street, but the street food was limited to a couple of stinky tofu and skewer vendors. Most of the shops lining the streets were selling souvenirs, clothes, and contemporary fast food. The scene definitely didn't lessen my nostalgia for the clamorous Beijing street markets that had all disappeared.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:55 Archived in China Tagged travel china beijing blog tony sanlitun friedman dongzhimen nanluoguxiang sanyuanli Comments (0)

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